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Fiorentina 3-3 Atalanta: Recap and player grades

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You can never count out a team that employs Federico Chiesa, can you?

ACF Fiorentina v Atalanta BC - Coppa Italia Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Pre-match

Stefano Pioli welcomed back Luis Muriel and Nikola Milenković while giving Bryan Dabo a rare start. Gian Piero Gasperini sent out his expected XI—including ex-Fiorentina players Gianluca Mancini and Josip Iličić—with the exception of Mario Pašalić, who got a rare start in the middle.

Also worth mentioning here is the spectacular display the 33,000 fans produced before the match: a banner for Davide Astori that covered most of the Curva Fiesole, complete with a multitude of smaller flags with his name. The fans came out following the supporters’ groups calls for a packed stadium and the atmosphere was genuinely electric for most of the game.

First half

Fiorentina began sharply with Luis Muriel front and center. The Colombian cracked a decent shot in the first minute and won his side a corner with a dazzling run shortly after. Jordan Veretout played a quick free kick at 6 minutes to find Marco Benassi streaking into the box, but José Luis Palomino got a last-ditch tackle in to poke it loose. Atalanta, however, grew into the match well, and Duván Zapata turned past Vitor Hugo at 9’ to shoot, only for a sliding Federico Ceccherini to block the attempt. The Viola escaped some chaos from the ensuing corner, but then it turned into the Lurch show. First, Alban Lafont made a tremendous save on a shot that deflected after he’d started leaping, contorting himself to punch it clear.

Just after the quarter hour mark, though, the young Frenchman could do nothing as Iličić spun past Vitor Hugo’s marking deep in his own half and lumbered all the way to the edge of the Viola box, where he slipped a reverse pass to Papu Gómez; the little Argentine’s clever finish evaded Lafont, and just like that la Dea were in front. Two minutes later, Iličić turned provider again with a lofted cross from the left that found Pašalić, who’d slipped past Ceccherini and Dabo (unclear on who should have picked him up) and tapped home from point blank range. 2 minutes later, Lurch again led a break, but this time couldn't find the final touch after galloping unopposed through the middle yet again. He had a shot fly just over a bit after, then got Vitor Hugo booked for a reckless slide well up the pitch again. In short, he looked like the best player in the world for about 15 minutes.

After the half hour mark, though, Fiorentina clawed their way back. Muriel foreshadowed it with another great run down the left, but his cutback for Gerson was snuffed out. At 33’, though, Federico Chiesa decided it was time to score, so he did. After brilliantly dispossessing Palomino, he raced the length of the pitch and slotted past Etrit Berisha. It was Fede’s 100th appearance for Fiorentina’s senior side and his 21st professional goal, and they came while he wore the armband as a 21-year-old. What an inspiration. He wasn’t done, either, as he played in Muriel 3 minutes later. The striker dinked the ball into the air, but no farther than Benassi, whose sliding volley rippled the net and pulled the Viola level in the most unlikely fashion. A stunned Atalanta seemed to have no response but winning free kicks through Zapata’s physicality, while Veretout slipped in the visitors’ box on a break to end a brilliant counter attack the other way, but a 2-2 draw at the half felt about even on the balance of play.

Second half

Both sides obviously wanted to slow things down and control things a little more, but the game remained open despite their best attempts. Papu nearly found Hans Hateboer with a clever lob to the back post at 50’, but the Dutchman couldn’t bring it under control. Vitor Hugo rose well to head a corner 4 minutes later but couldn't turn it on target. The goal came just before the hour, though. Zapata again twisted away from Vitor Hugo in the box and shot, but Milenković blocked it out. Even though it looked like the Colombian got the last touch, Giacomelli pointed to the corner, from which Lafont had some trouble claiming the ball; instead of catching it (despite having it hit him around his midriff), he opted to punch it straight to the top of the box, where Marten de Roon returned it with interest in the form of a perfectly-executed first-time volley that no goalkeeper in the world could have stopped. Just like that, la Dea were back on top.

They didn’t let up, either, and Milenković had to channel his inner Germán Pezzella to cut out a pass that otherwise would have seen Zapata clean through on goal. Gómez played a tantalizing ball across the goal at 63’, but nobody in a white jersey got to it. 2 minutes later, Muriel sparked back to life with a run and shot that took a deflection and whistled just past the top corner; he had Cristiano Biraghi available as well. The Colombian was linking up well with Chiesa and causing problems (especially for Zapata, whom he nearly decapitated with a free kick into the wall) and finding space in behind, but the final touch just eluded him every time.

It didn’t, though, with 11 minutes left. Substitute Giovanni Simeone played a perfect defense-splitting pass down the right wing to Chiesa, who dusted his marker and squared it past Berisha to Muriel, who’d outpaced the entire Atalanta defense and tapped into the empty net to haul his side to level pegging yet again. De Roon had another goal-bound rocket blocked out for a corner at 82’ and Vincent Laurini made a brilliant headed challenge on the much larger Rafael Tolói to deny the Brazilian a chance from a corner moments later. The Viola responded through Chiesa’s lovely turn and cross for Simeone, who couldn’t turn his shot goalwards under heavy pressure from the defense, and through Muriel’s dart in from the left and crack from distance that bounced just outside the post. Hateboer nearly got the last laugh with a header that smacked the crossbar in stoppage time, but a 3-3 draw felt like the best reflection of the match we’d just watched.

Full time

Taking an even result into Bergamo feels dangerous, as la Dea can sit back and rely on their away goals, but Fiorentina’s attack has been so dangerous of late that it’s hard to imagine a low-scoring draw being the result there. Plus, the good guys will have Pezzella back to solidify a defense that badly needs it. More importantly, though, this team showed us that they’ll never stop fighting and can threaten anyone at any given moment. That sort of belief and togetherness makes any side a real danger, even away from home.

On the downside, Pioli sure got his tactics wrong here. His attempt to match Gasperini’s formation and switch to a 3-man defense was catastrophic, as Benassi, Dabo, and Gerson all vacated the middle and left Veretout stranded and trying to mark three or four attackers. The mister adjusted pretty well on the fly, and the decision to bring on the lanky and athletic Edimilson Fernandes to shut down Lurch worked very well, but he was playing with fire by swapping approaches for such a big match.

Player grades

Lafont: 6—Maybe could have done a bit better on the second goal and probably should have done better with his punch ahead of the third, but that save on the deflected Iličić shot was simply absurd. There are not a lot of goalkeepers in the world who get a hand to that, much less smack it well clear of the goal.

Ceccherini: 5—Had a lot of trouble with Zapata’s physicality and Gómez’ shiftiness and gave up a couple of dangerous free kicks. Was good sweeping up behind, though, and remains a plus passer. Plays kind of like an old school sweeper in some ways but clearly doesn’t do as well in battles against quick or strong forwards.

Milenković: 6.5—Held up okay, particularly in the second half when he made some crucial interventions after Pioli switched him to the middle of the defense. His crazy athleticism and strength were on full display tonight, especially considering that he was knocked out by the flu a few days ago.

Vitor Hugo: 4—Woof. The typical shanked clearance was there, but he was simply incapable of staying in front of his man. His attempts to chase Iličić way up the pitch left huge holes at the back when the Slovenian turned past him, and he got bodied by Zapata several times too. Maybe he needs a break, or maybe he needs Pezzella next to him to organize things and sweep up. Either way, this may well have been his worst 90 minutes in a purple shirt.

Dabo: 6.5—Deployed at wingback again, he seemed a bit more comfortable with his role. Used his strength and athleticism to carry the ball forward a few times and did a good job winning it on the wing, keeping the talented Castagne very quiet throughout. Still want to see him in a central role, but apparently he’s a wingback now.

Benassi: 7—Had a very Marco kind of game, in which he was largely invisible aside from a brilliantly taken goal that takes his season tally to 9. Continued drifting to the flank in the first half even though Dabo was already out there and exposed the center of the pitch completely, but adjusted well after the break and at least battled along in there.

Veretout: 7.5—Ran the show for Fiorentina throughout. His knack for turning away from danger and driving forward, and for hitting quick passes into the channels for the attackers, is one of the most important parts of this team. Was left 1-v-4 in the middle for much of the first half, but dug in as best he could. Guy is a genuine star.

Gerson: 5—Didn’t really influence the game much, but won some free kicks and memorably bodied Zapata off the ball to start a counter once. Also drifted to the wing too much, leaving Veretout alone in the middle; we never thought he was a defensive asset, but he’s got to dig in a bit more in games like this.

Biraghi: 6—Lost track of Hateboer a couple of times and didn’t find a lot of inspiration going forward, but provided a good outlet on the left and the threat of his crossing forced the opposing defense to shuffle across and account for him.

Chiesa: 8.5—Had a hand in every goal, finishing with a goal and an assist while setting up Benassi’s. Looks lethal in this central role, roaming around behind the striker, not least because his incredible energy lets him sprint 50 yards in the 85th minute to chase the ball all the way across the pitch. Has become the sort of player who can take over a game and decide when he wants to score.

Muriel: 8—Drifts in and out of matches at times and isn’t the type to contribute too much to the defense, but his threat in behind, his brilliant dribbling, and his knack for finding space mean we’re not mad. Has developed a brilliant rapport with Chiesa and bamboozled the Atalanta defense all day.

Fernandes: 6—Looked pretty good out there. Clearly deployed to solidify the middle and did just that, mostly without any horror tackles or migraine-inducing giveaways. Still not the type to play the killer pass too often, but he came on and did his job just fine.

Simeone: 6.5—If he’d finished that Chiesa cross, it would’ve been a banner day for Cholito, but it was a tough shot with the defender all over him. His major involvement, though, still led to a goal; who knew that he could pass the ball that well? Seems like he’s been better this year off the bench and allowed to attack tired defenses as the blunt instrument to Muriel’s flickering rapier. So long as he doesn’t mind, we certainly don’t either.

Laurini: n/a—Not on the pitch long enough to earn a grade, but that leap to challenge Tolói’s header was really impressive from the little fella.